Sunday, January 6, 2019

Star Wars and the Question of Canon 3: A Case for the Expanded Universe.

I've always had one over-arching goal for this series.  What I'd like to do is try to come to an understanding of what Star Wars is, and why people liked it in the first place.  The franchise has been in a precarious ever since 2017.  As far as I can tell, the fandom seems to be dividing itself into various fronts.  This could be an inevitability, something that is bound to happen to most fandom, or it may have been preventable.  I'm not certain either way, really.  All I know is that I find it more useful to define what works in terms of a viable Star Wars canon, and what individual works best fit the bill to called a legitimate sequel.

So far, nothing is really working for me in terms of Disney's attempts at a sequel.  I can neither hide or change the fact that my reactions are always the same, and it's always in the negative.  For better or worse, there it is, at least as far as Disney is concerned.  The funny thing is I have the exact opposite reaction when it comes to a series of books and performed dramas that make up the old Expanded Universe.  In many ways it's been like looking in a similar yet differing mirror.  Here, in the latter case, my reactions have been a more or less uniform positive.  That sort of begs a series of questions, though.  Why do I continue to like this stuff?  Does that make it canon, or where you find some sort of verifiable criteria?

Some of those questions may prove easier to answer than others.  The best I can do here is to list why I think a number of EU productions deserve at least consideration as worthy successors to the OT.  To do this, I can suggest at least a certain number of criteria that more or less help the following stories I intend to consider in this and at least two more final entries to pass muster.

Some Preliminary Definitions.

The first criterion is also the most abstract and difficult to pin: that there be at least some level of imaginative Inspiration to the story.  It's difficult to talk about because in the strictest sense, you can't tell or say that a work of fiction is Inspired just by looking at it, or reading through it, on a surface level.

If I had to give a criteria for what can be a potential pointer to clues that any given work might be inspired, it would have to somewhere in the details.  For instance, does this or that person, place, of thing in the story have a notable symbolic importance?  Does this symbol carry any resonances or plot points that go towards building something of a general theme?  If any of these or similar elements can be found in the story, then I'd argue it is within the realm of the possibility of Inspiration.

One thing that has to be noted, however, is that alongside Inspiration, there is the fact of invention.  The difference between them is one of degree.  To be inspired is to have genuine "eureka" moment.  As in, "the most amazing idea just occurred to me".  Invention, by contrast, is much more about hard work and the slow toil toward a definable goal.  Despite these differences, it would be a mistake to think that they don't, or can't exist not just side-by-side.  Tolkien put it best, I think, as recorded by Humphrey Carpenter in The Inklings:

"Although you may feel your story to be profoundly "true", all the details may not have that "truth" about them.  It's seldom that the inspiration (if we are choosing to call it that) is so strong and lasting that it leavens all the lump, and doesn't leave much that isn't mere uninspired "invention" (138)".

Still, I have to admit that even invention has it's natural place in the art of make-believe.  Several years later, Stephen King made the exact same observation:

"No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it's probably impossible to get the entire (story, sic) out of the ground without a few breaks and losses.  To get even most of it, the shovel must give way to more delicate tools; air-hose, palm pick, perhaps even a toothbrush (On Writing, 160)".

So, the first criteria boils down to question of Inspiration, with the presence of what are perhaps best termed as archetypes serving as both the point of origin and shaping influence on the nature of the narrative.

The second is a development of the first and concerns some of a novel concept.  Is it possible for the themes of one story to set a precedent for the ones that come after it?  I think it has to be considered a possibility for any story set in the same universe and containing the a familiar set of returning characters.  I'm at least willing to go with this idea up to a point.  For instance, I don't how this applies to a medium like superhero comics, where reboots seem to be the norm, rather than the exception.

The good news is that Star Wars seems to operate on a different level than DC, and in any case, the formats I'll be working with from here on out will be limited to both audio and print media.  I want to argue that when it comes to Star Wars, the sequels that work best are those that display a thematic continuity with the first trilogy of films.  This has the added bonus of dealing with problem of character consistency, because part of the DNA of the themes of the trilogy comes from the very actions and choices of the characters.

Three Types of Narrative.

There is one final criterion to go over.  I said just now that there is a categorical difference between a  Star Wars, and those that center around a character like Batman.  That difference centers around the simple question of whether or not the story can come to a definitive end.  That sounds confusing, but in reality it's very simple.  In my experience, stories can be divided into three types: the stand-alone; the limited-run; and the serial.
franchise like

Three perfect examples of a stand-alone story are Death of a Salesman and 12 Angry Men, and Moby  Dick.  All of them revolve around a main character, or cast of characters who, by their very situation and narrative arcs, are destined to put in one single appearance, and then bow out without a single possibility of continuation.  For the longest time, this mode of writing was the standard until somewhere say, around the 80s, when it began to be replaced by the serial type.  If there's one thing this type of story has going for it, then it would be that they are, by nature, goal oriented.  They offer a particular kind of comfort that comes from knowing that everything has it's limits, and that once you've put the book of film away, the audience knows it has had a complete experience, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.  Right now, in an era of beginnings and endless middles, I think the rediscovery of stand-alone stories can help broaden the millenial perspective on what a work of art can be.  I don't say this to challenge the legitimacy of characters like Batman.  It's just to point out that the history of writing doesn't begin or end there.  At the very least, what stand-alone fiction can do is help audiences discover a wider world of make-believe.

The Limited-Run story is similar to the Stand-Alone in that both work over time toward a definitive end.  The difference is that Limited-Runs can manage to tell a story that is not limited to less than one book or film.  There are countless examples of this type lying around.  The best one might belong to Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  Others would be Tolkien's The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Edith Nesbit's Bastable series, and Lewis Carroll's Alice books.  I'm even willing to go so far as to list Disney's Peter Pan and Spielberg's Hook as sharing this mode of storytelling.

For whatever reason, there seems to have been enough inspiration lying around for the author's of these stories to manage to fit them into more than one movie or text.  It seems to me that here is where the Star Wars series belongs as a whole.  I think the type of story we're talking about with the Far, Far Away is the kind that can require more than one text in order to tell the whole tale.  However, it's not like a superhero comic.  What we're dealing with is still a narrative that sooner or later has to arrive at a finished point in order to achieve the kind of artistic goals that form an organic part of it.

The same might not apply to a serial story, or character.  Part of their nature as characters is that they are mostly static, while enabling an ongoing series of stories to be told around them.  Aside from Batman, or the DC pantheon, the three most famous serial characters would to be Doctor Who, the various crews of Star Trek, Mulder and Sculley, and Sherlock Holmes and all the other literary detectives who have followed in his wake.

If the serial character is meant to be a mostly static figure, then I would have to argue that it is the secondary characters and the changes they go through, as opposed to the main character, who be responsible for generating the  necessary drama that an audience needs to take an active interest in this type of story.  This is a narrative strategy that Arthur Conan-Doyle understood well as he composed his Baker Street mysteries.  The narrative draw ultimately lies in the window afforded into a satirical and probing series of vignettes that expose the dark underside of turn of the century London, with each story forming a greater whole which amounts to one of the most under estimated critiques of the Victorian era available.

The Importance of Final Resolutions.

While each type of narrative has it's place, I would have to argue that there is one vital element in all narratives whose importance overrules all other values.  The reason for this is because it could be the paradoxical source for not just why stories are entertaining, but also why they carry such durable value across centuries.  Stephen King talks about this particular narrative element best in a column for Entertainment Weekly:

"The perfect critique of the old TV is offered in Rob Reiner's Stand By Me.  Gordie Lachance asks his buds if they've ever noticed that the people on Wagon Train (an old '50s show) never seem to get anywhere.  "They just keep wagon-training," he says, clearly mystified.  Of course he is.  Gordie is going to grow up to be a writer, and even at age 12 he know that stories should resemble life, and life has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  We grow, change, succeed, and fail; eventually we keel over dead, but we do not just keep on wagon-training.

"All of the shows I've mentioned above acknowledged this fact.  But they also face a huge problem, a.k.a. the Network Prime Directive: Thou Shalt Not Kill the Cash Cow.

"That directive is what made the final seasons of The X-Files so ignominious.  There was no real closure (as opposed to The Fugitive, for example, when Dr. Richard Kimble finally caught up with the one-armed man in the show's superb two-part conclusion); minus the presence of David Duchovny, X-Files blundered off into a swamp of black oil, and in that swamp it died.  I could have throttled the executives at Fox for doing that, and Chris Carter for letting it happen.  If J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, and their band of co-conspirators allow something similar to happen with Lost, I'm going to be even more pissed, because this show is better.  Memo to Abrams and staff writers: Your responsibilities include knowing when to write The End (web)".

Those paragraphs are even more damning in hindsight.  It's one thing to ignore a good piece of advice.  What happens when you try to listen, and instead wind up showing you didn't have much in way of any promising material to work with?  This is why it's important to know not just where Inspiration ends and invention begins, but also whether you have enough of either to get you to some kind of satisfactory finish line.

In the case of Star Wars, I'd say we have enough material from the Expanded Universe to take to just such a satisfactory conclusion.  I will even go so far as to say I regard the material I'll be talking about as of an overall higher artistic quality than what I have seen from the Dis-Canon.

Some Honorable Mentions.

With that said, I should also stress that one of the final values of the material I intend to look at in the  nest series of posts is that they do provide a satisfactory cut-off point.  To me, the Star Wars universe derives its value precisely from the fact that it is not a serial story, but was instead designed as the kind of tale that was always meant to come to some kind of definitive end.  The value here is that it gives viewers or readers a goal to look forward to, with a form of closure which provides a value for their investment.  While the DC pantheon always functions for a more user-friendly approach, where it seems the characters are meant to be re-tooled to suit the audience's taste, the SW stories derive their value from the very fact that the adhere to the traditional narrative forms.

It's because of this traditional formatting that I feel comfortable limiting my choices of stories for further consideration to just a handful out of many.  If there is a point where the artist has to reign in and let the characters be, then the two radio plays and one book trilogy I've chosen seem like the best place for me at least, to set as a finish-line marker.  However, while I am trying to draw a line of sorts for the purposes of canonical definition, it should be emphasized that this can't prevent anyone from including their own choices to go along with the examples I've settled on.  If anything, this is sort of the kind of best part about the EU, everyone can choose which part is their favorite without stepping on anyone's toes.

I'll go even further and admit to at least two choices I thought about including, but decided against.  The first is a stand-alone novel known as I, Jedi.  It is unique among EU novels in that it is the only one I know of to be told from a first-person perspective.  The book follows the exploits of Korran Horn, a Force-sensitive individual and soldier in the New Republic army who comes home one day to find his wife has been kidnapped.  He doesn't know where to start looking for her until a certain former farm hand invites him to participate in the inaugural class of a new Jedi Academy he's starting up.

It's a good story as it stands.  It held my interest from start to finish, and perhaps the best part that is that it offered one of those bonus's any dedicated reader might hope for without realizing in the form of one character I kind of wish to have seen a bit more of perhaps.  The only reason I decided not to include as part of a this series is that I'm left unsure how important it is compared to the other samples that will be next in line.  It's main claim for importance is that it does show Luke inaugurating a Jedi Academy.  However this is apparently not the same one as show from Episodes 7 and 8.

I suppose it comes down to how I view the EU Academy as a plot point.  In terms of a narrative goal, it sounds exactly like the sort of thing Luke ought to shoot for as a character.  However, it's value stems mainly from it's stature as a goal proper, rather than as a story object or institution that has anything intrinsic in it that would help to generate a compelling narrative.  In other words, once Luke establishes the Academy, that really does sound like all she wrote.  The main character has perhaps gone as far as he can. When the hero has achieved the highest possible goal, there really isn't any story left to tell. Anything else would just be needless padding.
That said, a trilogy was written around Luke setting up the second Jedi Temple.  It sounded like a neat idea, and I went through all three books.  However, looking back, to me at least, it seems like the writer is saddled with trying to generate tension out of what really is a much more sedate and undramatic situation.  For instance there is the ghost of a character we are introduced to as a main villain, and yet he's mostly just there to try a drum up some suspense.  The problem, as I said, is that it just comes off as by-the-numbers, rather than something to sink your teeth into.  Come to think of it, he isn't even introduced until the second book, making him an ironic late addition to the proceedings.  The point, however, is that the Jedi Academy trilogy is for any who want it.

There's even another story line where Luke gets banished from his own Academy, only to win back his place after saving the universe from a Lovecraftian evil.  This seems like even more padding to me.  Although it does raise an objection of a different kind, and it leads me into the second novel I decided to exclude from consideration.

Death Troopers is a 2009 release set just before the event of A New Hope.  It features both Han and Chewbacca as they have been captured by the Empire and are now incarcerated on a prison ship, the Purge.  As luck would have it, there is an accident involving genetic experimentation in the medical wing, and of all things, the characters soon have an actual zombie invasion on their hands.

Joe Schreiber, the book's author, described it in the following terms:

"...I've tried to make it into exactly the kind of book you'd want to read if you were a child of the 70s who grew up with the original Star Wars trilogy and really digs horror in the vein of The Shining and Alien, with a little does of William Gibson mixed in (web)".

It's statements like this that make really make me wish I could could get a register on how many faces lit up as they read the two above synopsis, and which either fell or else just grew kind of puzzled.  I find myself somewhere in the middle.  I wanted to like this entry as it seemed to have so much going for it.  There is atmosphere, suspense, and it even got kind of creepy in places.  Plus it combines two of my most favorite genres, Sci-Fi Fantasy and Horror.  How could such a combo go wrong.

The trouble is, I'm just not sold on this as a Star Wars story.  The book itself works, and yet I can't escape a jarring sense of contrast when you set it inside the Far, Far Away.  it's interesting to compare this with the relatively seamless integration of Lucas's characters with Jim Henson's TV show.  Part of the reason it works is because Henson and Lucas share similar wavelengths in terms of their style of storytelling.  While Henson is nominally a madcap satirist, he did show a clear grasp and understanding of the type narrative techniques utilized in traditional mythological storytelling.  It is the same style Henson used in his Storyteller series.

Because of this basic understanding of genres, Henson and Lucas were able to integrate both of their styles into a third hybrid mode which complemented both their strengths in the best way possible.  Schreiber's problem is neither his plot, nor his ability to narrate.  I was genuinely entertained.  There just seems to be no way to successfully integrate the kind of story he has to tell into the universe he has to work with.  I almost want to say it would make more sense if the book were set in the Snake Plisken universe instead of Lucas's.

The basic fact seems to be that while The Far Away can be dark, if you go too far you seem to risk shattering the very parameters that give it it's identity.  At least that;s how it seems to me.  You can be as grim as you want in Star Wars.  Crossing the line into horror, however, just turns into a bridge oo far.  It runs the risk of either too many dissonant notes, or else it falls into a form of parody that somehow just doesn't work for me.

All of which is to say those were my reasons for leaving them off my list for the sequel material I believe serves Star Wars best.  While I can't say that any of the other stories I've mentioned work as viable successors to the main trilogy, it is still part of the value of the EU that there always seemed to be enough for everyone to enjoy.

In a previous post I made the case that the themes of the OT contained echoes and archetypes drawn from old Renaissance Dramas.  I'll argue that the books and radio plays I'll be looking at next, are each able to build upon this thematic tradition laid down by episodes IV - VI in a way that is able to honor what comes before, while also managing to add to the secondary world in a way that isn't slap-dash or derivative.

In the next post, we'll look at the series of novels that helped launch the original Expanded Universe, and we owe it all to a man named Tim.  I hope you'll join along.

Be seeing you!



  1. (1) My feelings about this sort of thing are slippery. I think the best way I can define it for myself is to say that when I accept EU-type stories -- and by that, I mean not just the EU itself, but any kind of officially-licensed tie-ins (Star Trek novels being the one that springs most quickly to mind) -- it tends to create in my consciousness a separate sort of canon. And "canon" may not even be the right word.

    What I mean is that, from what I remember, the best of the SW EU books do indeed carry an air of legitimacy. I accept them as good and valid Star Wars storytelling. However, I do NOT accept them as part of the movie universe. So when I sit down and watch "Return of the Jedi," I do not accept that "Heir to the Empire" is what happens next.

    On the other hand, I do accept when reading "Heir to the Empire" that it is a legitimate follow-up to a version of "Return of the Jedi." I have no idea if that makes sense anywhere outside my own brain, but it makes a lot of sense there.

    (2) I *think* my feeling on Inspiration/Invention as it relates to books of this sort is that the overwhelming majority of them could only hope to achieve a level of strong Invention. I'm not saying it's impossible for Inspiration to strike when one is working for hire; but I'm guessing it's considerably less likely. After all, when writing licensed fiction like this, one's hands are always tied to some degree. There are certain things one is simply not going to be allowed to do, ever. Within that level of restriction, is true Inspiration even possible? I think it is; but, as I said, a great deal less likely.

    (3) "Is it possible for the themes of one story to set a precedent for the ones that come after it?" -- I've long nursed a pet theory that stories set within another person's invented universe are creative criticism of that universe as much as they are their own fiction. To some degree, the author trying to play in George Lucas's sandbox is forced first to define and contextualize that sandbox. Which is, I would argue, an act of criticism. New fictional ideas can then be added to it, but I think that unless you've undergone that foundational process -- and successfully -- first, you're in for a failure.

    (4) I read the Jedi Academy Trilogy long ago, and I remember liking it. Nothing about it stuck with me, though.

    (5) I remember hearing about "Death Troopers" when it came out, and my reaction was to just shake my head.

    1. (1) The one thing that gives me pause is the question of what happens if Episode 9 fails to make its money back at the Box Office.

      Movie Studios, at least today, are all about keeping finances running in the black. If a film proves unprofitable these days then the standard procedure seems to be to be to hit the break and try to find something else that will work. In the case of a franchise like "Star Wars", that equation is a bit more difficult to gauge. Right now there seem to be at least X possibilities.

      The first is that the film does well, and that's about it. The second is that it fails to make its money back. If the latter, then Disney will have to decide what to do with the property. Do they sell it off? Do they shutter it for good. Do they put it on hiatus and come back in a few years with a different set of stories? Do they reboot it with a different sequel trilogy, this time in animation, as opposed to live action?

      The second option could amount to saying that Canon is in the eye of whoever comes along next. If something like that were to happen, then for better or worse, it would be a tacit admission that Canon is something that fans would have to decide from one story to the next.

      The trouble is I don't know how stable such a decision making process would be.

      (2) I'll admit there's no guarantee of capturing lightning in a bottle twice. As I've said, only a handful of these stories really stand out to me.

      (3) It is possible that criticism play a big role in how stories are added to this universe. I recall Tim Zahn making a comment on the Endor sequence of Episode 6 that put it in a different context.

      (4) It was a trilogy that started big in my mind, and then dwindled the more I thought about it. My point is that once the main character sets up that particular shop, his story is, in effect, over.

      (5) Two YouTube comments summed it up best for me. The first asked, "Who tried to Lovecraft up my Star Wars?" To which the second replied, "Who's trying to Star Wars up my Lovecraft.


  2. I can't speak to the EU stories, but damn is that King quote on LOST a chuckle in hindsight! And like you say, it's one thing to ignore good advice, and another to take it badly.

    Poor LOST. And X-FILES, too. I've had my Charlton Heston in the sand moments with both and will leave it there, but two great cautionary events of my TV-watching life. And in a way I've never recovered. As unfair as it may or may not be, I've just never trusted any of the parties involved in any other project or even in the new X-FILES, even if I enjoy some of them. I expect to be disappointed and then am, which may be self-fulfilling prophecy, but damn if it hasn't played out. Ah well.

    1. When it comes to Lost, I find it a co,binational of poor plotting mixed with the constant demands of the network re: the sacred cash cow (of the moment anyway, tomorrow is another day, after all, and the law of diminishing returns etc.).

      Curiously, the opposite seems to be true, while certain other flaws are present. I still like the old reruns of "Files", and I think it makes more sense to view it as a monster of the week anthology more and an ongoing story. In the latter case, I think this format could have gone on indefinitely, except for cast and crew egos getting in the way. Shame, really. Oh well, it was a good run while it lasted.